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Stress: Selecting and Engaging with Pathology Specimens in the Exhibition Space

By Sarah Savage Hanney, on 28 October 2015

By Sarah Savage Hanney

Over the past two and a half weeks, I have had the pleasure of engaging with visitors in the Stress exhibition at the North Lodge. When visitors first come into the space, many ask questions about the concept behind the exhibition and the selection of objects. In the planning process, each exhibition curator chose objects from the UCL Collections that related to his/her approach to stress in the First World War and significance within individual PhD research.

When the Student Engager group first discussed curating an independent exhibition using UCL Collections objects and specimens in summer 2014, I already knew exactly what collection I wanted to use: the Pathology Collection. Unlike the three UCL Museums on campus, the Pathology Collection was less accessible to the public due to human tissue licensing restrictions. For the previous Engager event Movement in May 2014, I used photographs of Pathology specimens to enhance visitors’ understandings of the effects of disease on the human body. Visitors were especially interested in the photographs of a coal miner’s lung, diseased human heart, and a haemorrhaged brain. I kept these interesting specimens in mind and hoped to use them in our future exhibition.

Luckily, the Pathology Collection received its license to display human tissue early in 2015 and it would be possible to display Pathology specimens in the Stress exhibition. The curator of the Pathology Collection, Subhadra Das, was incredibly helpful in suggesting specimens and organising the conservation work for the two final selections: the coal miner’s lung and the diseased human heart.

Visitors can now see the coal miner’s lung and diseased human heart suspended in a clear, preservative liquid on either end of the long wall display in the exhibition space. As a historian of medicine specialising in the early twentieth century, I wanted my contribution of specimens to highlight little known medical conditions that affected people in the First World War period.

Although we do not know specific dates for these specimens, the organs came from patients at University College Hospital in the first half of the twentieth century.

At first glance, the specimens can be a bit off putting. The coal miner’s lung barely looks like a lung apart from the general shape. The lung is nearly completely black and exposes the harsh reality of the health of British coal miners. For those men who remained in Britain mining coal for the war effort, their efforts would eventually cost them their healthy lungs.

Coal Miner's Lung- UCL Pathology Collection

Coal Miner’s Lung- UCL Pathology Collection


The diseased human heart also holds special significance for health in the First World War period. Over the course of the war, the British military medical officers discovered that many young men who enlisted to fight had pre-existing heart conditions that would affect their ability as fit, healthy soldiers. After speaking with visitors about this specimen, many visitors commented on how they never associated heart disease with the early twentieth century.

Diseased Human Heart- UCL Pathology Collection

Diseased Human Heart- UCL Pathology Collection


By having these specimens on public display, I hope that visitors contemplate the stress that the First World War placed on the physical bodies of those who fought and contributed to the war effort. The exhibition presents a rare opportunity for visitors to examine these remarkable specimens in person and engage in discussion with curators about their different approaches to stress in the First World War.

If you are interested in speaking with Engager Sarah Savage Hanney in the exhibition space, she will be at Stress each Friday from 1pm-5pm for the next three weeks.

Stress is open Monday through Friday from 1pm-5pm and on alternating Saturdays.

For more information about visiting the UCL Pathology Collection at the Royal Free Hospital Campus of the UCL Medical School.

Upcoming Events:

Commemoration Event, November 11, 2015  1pm-3pm UCL Art Museum

Bloomsbury Walking Tour, November 20, 2015  1pm-2pm UCL Quad

Engaging in an Art Museum: Engagement Reflection

By Sarah Savage Hanney, on 17 February 2014

For most visitors to an art museum, there is an unwritten code of conduct that involves silence and whispers when appropriate. As a Researcher in Museums in UCL’s Art Museum, my job is to engage with visitors to discuss the museum and my research. So in a society where museum etiquette is ingrained, how does one get visitors to speak up and engage in a space that is traditionally quiet? When I ask most visitors how they are enjoying the museum and exhibitions, I receive a polite whisper of “It’s good/nice.” In a museum with restricted space availability and therefore few works out on display, it is difficult to engage with a visitor about a collection that is largely stored away.

A significant portion of any museum experience is being able to see, or even touch an object and use one’s senses to interpret the object. So many times I have witnessed visitors to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology touch their own scalp after viewing a mummy’s brunette wig and blonde scalp located in the Main Room.  Through visual or audio stimulation, a visitor can make a connection with an object or work whether it’s an emotional response, opinion, or even indifference.  It can be such a powerful experience examining a work and feeling a rush of emotion.

Thanks to the great research appointments at the Art Museum, I previously had access to works related to my research on epidemics. Surprisingly, the works that felt most relevant were not the anatomical sketches, but abstract prints from the Slade School of Fine Art. When I do convince visitors to express their opinions of the Art Museum, I always offer to show them a sampling of photocopied works I have deemed relevant to my research.

The study of epidemics involves both examining the experiences of those affected and the spread of the pathogen. By having visitors examine works that evoke emotions of despair and confusion while I explain the Spanish Influenza and Encephalitis Lethargica epidemics, I can more effectively convey individual’s experiences during those epidemics. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918-19), families worldwide felt a variety of emotions as members of their families died quickly and painfully from an influenza outbreak that health professionals could neither control nor determine an origin of contamination.  Although Encephalitis Lethargica [EL] affected tens of thousands of people versus millions with Spanish Influenza, EL left the international medical community in a state of utter confusion without a known cause.

Alphonse Legros Copyright Alphonse Legros UCL Art Museum Object Number 8112 La Mort du Vagabond 1875

Alphonse Legros
Copyright Alphonse Legros
UCL Art Museum
Object Number 8112
La Mort du Vagabond

Julia Farrer Copyright Julia Farrer UCL Art Museum Object Number 8977 Navigation I 1971

Julia Farrer
Copyright Julia Farrer
UCL Art Museum
Object Number 8977
Navigation I















Two of the most popular and powerful works in my art selection are Julia Farrer’s 1971 Navigation I and Alphonse Legros’ 1875 La Mort du Vagabond.  Both the works, in the medium of etching and aquatint, are magnificent in person and provoke emotion from the viewer. I interpret Navigation I in a similar way to when I study epidemics. The intersecting lines, red dots and smaller groupings of dots on the work could represent disease spreading through a population with multiple contamination points. La Mort du Vagabond invokes feelings of isolation and helplessness, similar feelings that victims of many epidemics have experienced. By using both of these works in my museum engagements, I can better draw links between my own research and the UCL Art Museum collection.

As I continue with my research and working as a UCL Researcher in Museums, I hope to utilize more objects from the UCL Museum’s Collection in the future.  With over 10,000 works in the Art Museum alone, there is so much potential to use public engagement opportunities to connect the public with the collections.

A[got]chu! Surviving the Flu

By Sarah Savage Hanney, on 2 December 2013


As the temperature drops and the wind blows harshly through the wind tunnels of the Tube, it genuinely feels like winter in London! When visitors arrive in the UCL museums blowing their noses and smelling of Strepsils, I am yet again reminded it is cold and flu season.

When I discuss my research on the Spanish Influenza and Encephalitis Lethargica epidemics, one of the first responses I get from visitors is: “So you’re a medical doctor, right? How can I treat [insert ailment]?”  Unfortunately I am not licenced nor qualified to give such advice; however, I can discuss from a historical perspective what treatments have worked and not worked for illnesses ranging from the common cold to malaria.

Always cover your sneezes! Photograph: NHS

Always cover your sneezes! Photograph: NHS

Throughout the history of medicine, societies have sought to find more effective and fool-proof treatments for everyday illnesses. Simple home remedies such as tying a bulb of garlic around the neck to ward off insects (potentially carrying an infectious disease such as malaria) and drinking water rich in minerals for health have existed for thousands of years and are practiced consciously or subconsciously still today. Even the types of vitamins we consume, including vitamin C and zinc, to prevent and cure colds, are influenced by this inherited medical knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question I receive is: “How do I prevent influenza?” The short answer is, you can’t. Since influenza is a viral infection that spreads through transmission in human contact or infected surface contact, it is very difficult to live in a virus-free zone. Especially in London where travellers sneeze openly in trains and residents rely upon communal areas for business and pleasure, we are flu-prone.

However, what are some ways that Londoners a hundred years ago combatted the same illnesses we suffer with today? In the early 20th century, medicine was as much preventative as it was curative.  Diet was an essential tool that families used as part of inherited medicinal knowledge [think of your mother’s advice]. Certain foods including milk, citrus, and broths became the main ‘sick foods’ during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic in England alongside fever reducers, purgatives, and even morphine.  In addition to the prescribed manufactured drugs, residents also turned to older recipes to combat the initial signs of the flu. Dried flowers, including nettle, would have been used to make teas, while crushed herbs, such as mint, could be applied with a salve to the chest to improve breathing.

Spanish Influenza at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918  Photograph: Wikipedia

Spanish Influenza at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918
Photograph: Wikipedia

Although medical professionals did not understand the cause or spread of influenza viruses in 1918, boards of health throughout England closed public spaces of leisure and business to prevent human-to-human transmission of the killer flu. Despite public health departments’ attempts to isolate and quarantine populations across the globe, an estimated 20 to 50 million died worldwide. Since influenza commonly has a three to five day incubation period (when the virus becomes settled in your body) before a patient begins showing symptoms, it is naturally difficult to isolate all infected persons to prevent spread to the healthy. As medicine advances further and we develop more complex, powerful vaccinations, it is possible that illnesses such as the common flu will become less common, or at least less severe.

From looking at past influenza epidemics, the best tips are:

  • Self-quarantine!
  • Maintain a healthy diet both before and during illness
  • Avoid public transport during an outbreak
  • Stay at home if you are feeling ill
  • Use fresh supplies when tending to the ill (boil utensils, wash bedding and clothing at a high temperature, etc.)
  • Always give an ill patient ample ventilation
  • If someone begins bleeding from the eyes (as in the case of Spanish Flu), it’s best to move down to the next train car

For more information concerning helpful tips during Flu season, visit the NHS, World Health Organization, and Centre for Disease Control websites.



The Alligator: Man-Eater or Misunderstood?

By Gemma Angel, on 1 July 2013

Sarah Savageby Sarah Savage






While browsing the cases during an afternoon’s engagement session in the Grant Museum, I spotted a very familiar face from my life in New Orleans: the American alligator. As one of the largest, most terrifying reptiles I have ever encountered in real lofe during my walks in the Louisiana swamps, the alligator earns my respect as the king of the wetlands. Staring into the display case, a young student visitor from London approached and remarked, “Is that a dinosaur?!”

Alligator at the Grant

Alligator skull in the Grant Museum of Zoology.

Despite the alligator’s large, scaled form reminiscent of a prehistoric water monster, the alligator is of course not a dinosaur. The student appeared quite distressed that alligators still exist and live in the swamps in the southern United States. I described what it is like to observe a wild alligator in person, only seeing the large eyes above the water at first, until the beast decides to fully surface.

lurking alligator

Alligator in the wild.

Although the alligator is a predator, it does not pose a direct threat to human visitors in the swamps as long as a distance is maintained between the visitor and alligator. When I was quite young, I remember learning how to outrun an alligator if by chance our paths crossed. Since alligators are remarkably fast ambulators on land, it is best to run in a zig-zagging line if you find yourself being chased by one of these prehistoric-looking creatures. Due to the nature of the alligator’s short legs and long, heavy body, it is difficult for alligators to make sudden turns. The young visitor to the Grant was also intrigued by the long, sharp teeth visible in the alligator’s jaw in the display. Alligators can have between 2,000 and 3,000 teeth over a lifetime, as new teeth replace those that become damaged. The muscles within an alligator’s jaw are very powerful, allowing the jaw to quickly snap shut on prey to prevent it from escaping. In fact, the pressure of an adult alligator’s jaw is approximately 300 pounds per a square inch. Luckily for humans, an alligator’s primary diet consists of fish, birds, amphibians, small reptiles such as snakes and turtles, and small mammals living in the wetlands. Examples of these small mammals include rats, nutria, mice, opossum, squirrels, raccoons, muskrat, and infant deer. Although some of an alligators’ prey can be quite small, occasionally alligators can feed upon fully-grown deer or feral boars. There are occasional alligator attacks on humans – however, most of these are a case of mistaken identity. Unlike the alligator’s cousin, the crocodile, which will actively hunt humans, alligators are wary of contact with humans.



Upon further examination of the alligator and crocodile skulls in the display case, I noted two very distinct features that are classic indicators which distinguish between the beasts. The first feature is the relative shape of their skulls. The alligator has a broader snout than the thin, long snout of the crocodile. Secondly, the alligator has larger, wider teeth as compared with the long, thin teeth of the crocodile. In the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and on swamp tours in Southeast Louisiana, a visitor can even hold a baby alligator without the threat that the alligator will turn on the human. Although not the most conventional of baby animals to hold, baby alligators have smooth, scaly skin and soft underbellies. Beware of baby alligators in the wild though; their human-like cries, similar to those of a human child’s, mean that there is very likely a ten-foot or larger mother alligator nearby lurking just under the surface of the water.

Group of baby alligators.

Group of baby alligators.

However, from the safety of the Grant Museum, visitors can examine alligator and crocodile skeletons up close.









Food As Medicine

By Gemma Angel, on 24 June 2013

Sarah Savage by Sarah Savage






This blog post is dedicated to two of my favourite passions: medicine and food. As an historian of medicine examining epidemics, I am constantly fascinated by what past societies consumed for health and medicinal purposes. Today, most Londoners rely upon a trip to the local pharmacy for mass-produced pharmaceutical drugs to alleviate their symptoms or cure an illness. However, what did peoples consume before little engineered white pills? In my own research on the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, I discovered that American and English patients relied upon the use of herbal salves spread over the body and the consumption of soups, broths, milk, and chilled custards to reduce fevers and nourish the ill. One’s diet during a period of illness shifted from heavy meat and starch-based foods to items viewed as more acceptable to the feeble body such as clear vegetable-based broths, ground spices in warm water, and fresh fruits. Many of these natural foods do not seem so foreign to the present day reader. A warm bowl of soup and citrus fruit are commonplace today if someone is under the weather. On May 24th 2013 I attended the conference Spices and Medicine: From Historical Obsession to Research of the Future hosted by the UCL SoP Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy, examining the use of spices and food for medicinal purposes. Archeologists, historians, and pharmacists discussed various different natural cures from those located in Roman ports in the 1st century CE ,to Southeast Asian missions in the 18th century CE. Some of the examined food items do not appear in our daily diets unless you are already fond of candied lark. Other foods and spices are still used today as cooking ingredients including black pepper, garlic, onions, limes, turmeric, ginger, and rice. As part of ancient and early modern medicinal treatments, the above listed ingredients had an intended medicinal purpose other than to simply add flavour to a dish. In Germany on the Rhine River, archeologists even discovered a military hospital that contained an ancient herb garden and spices in patients’ rooms for treatments. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology contains the remarkable remains of dried apricots, peaches, dates, and almonds that would have been part of the Egyptian diet.

Dried fruit in PetrieModern medicine acknowledges the benefits of foods rich in vitamin C as immunity boosters during flu and cold seasons. It is interesting to wonder whether the ancient people recognized that certain vitamin C rich fruits had inherent medicinal properties, or were these delicious fruits simply part of their diet for flavour reasons more so than preventative measures? One archeologist during the conference discussed the importance of trade routes to bring spices and fruits from the East, Middle East, and North Africa to Roman territories throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. During the Islamic period, there was a major increase in the range of spices imported into the empire. Since spices were expensive commodities, it is rare for archeologists to find spices in these ancient ports; however, letters from the Islamic period discuss what goods were traded and in what quantities. For those archeologists interested in food, it must be fascinating to find 2,000-year-old garlic cloves, squeezed limes, and dried aubergines, all buried under layers of sand. Although present day peoples consume pharmaceutical drugs for health, certain foods such as chicken noodle soup and herbal teas remain go-to sources of nourishment during times of illness.


Viruses of Mice and Men

By Gemma Angel, on 3 June 2013

Sarah Savage by Sarah Savage






Recently in the Grant Museum, I had the most exciting 35 minute engagement with a mother and son visiting London from Jersey in the Channel Islands.  Since her son was very interested in coming to UCL for undergraduate study, the mum thought the best idea would be to visit the campus and see all that UCL has to offer, including the museums on campus.  I caught this family on their first stop on the UCL museums trail.  After introducing myself and telling the boy’s mother a little bit about the UCL student engagers group, she quickly asked what my research is specifically about. I told her that I am an historical epidemiologist specializing in the Spanish Influenza Pandemic 1918-19, and the Encephalitis Lethargica Epidemic 1917-1930. Her eyes grew quite wide and she replied that her son had been hoping to meet someone doing research like mine, to find out more about pandemics. Her main reference point for Spanish Influenza was that the character Edward Cullen from the Twilight films had died from the pandemic! Alas, I encounter that response quite often. If anything, Twilight put the ‘forgotten pandemic’ on the radar of the general population and teenage girls everywhere.[1]

Spanish Influenza 1Although previously I’ve mainly engaged in the Petrie Museum next to objects of everyday Egyptian life that relate to disease, I found that amongst the great preserved animals of medical colleges past, many fascinating connections to my research topic presented themselves in conversation with visitors. The display of parasitic worms, although admittedly horrifying, can be used as a tool to demonstrate how a virus inhabits and travels through the body. A gentleman visitor later in the afternoon stood in shock when confronted with the incredible size of some of the parasitic worms that are able to live in the human body. 

The brave visitor from Jersey further engaged with me to discuss exactly how viruses spread through the body, mutate, and ‘disappear’ after an outbreak. I put disappear in parenthesis, since some viruses can simply become dormant in the body.  During our conversation, she inquired as to what initially drew me to epidemics. “Most young students do not dream of studying viruses that wipe out entire populations for a living!” she told me. spanish Influenza 2Oh, but I was that student, fascinated by the plague, and how tiny organisms could exist in our bodies. Once I’d told her more about my academic background in the United States, she asked me how common it is for historians to examine medicine or epidemics. Although UCL previously had a Centre for the History of Medicine for postgraduate researchers, now we are divided amongst different disciplines including history, neurology, and psychology.  As an historian specialising in epidemics, I explained to her that I am not only interested in the physical side of how epidemics work, but also how societies react to an outbreak.  During the 1918-19 Spanish Influenza outbreak, governments in England and the United States quarantined areas of cities and closed all government buildings. Although these measures prevented the spread of the virus to some extent, many citizens became infected prior to the required quarantines and closures. There are many links between government measures and public behaviour during historical influenza epidemics during the early 20th century and the avian and swine flu outbreaks of present day.The visitor mentioned the 2009 Swine Flu outbreak, and how the fear of coming into contact with an infected person effected daily life and decisions to frequent public spaces. By the end of our lengthy conversation, we had discussed everything from 20th century epidemics to life on the Channel Islands and life as a UCL student. After her son had finished peering into every case in the Grant Museum, his mother expressed how enlightened and intellectually stimulated she felt to discuss such a specialised topic with a UCL researcher, before moving on to encounter another member of our team at one of UCL other museum spaces. As a new team member, this was a heartening conclusion to a very inspiring conversation, and I am thoroughly looking forward to future conversations with museums visitors from all over the world…



[1] Alfred W. Crosby: America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2003).